Guide To CBD For Athletes – Benefits, Side Effects, Performance, and… Is It Legal?
As athletes, we ask so much of our bodies in order to perform in competition. All of that stress, makes us stronger, faster, and better – to a point.
Extended mileage leads to breakdown. If you drove a sports car at top speed across the country and back without an oil change, it wouldn’t be the same, high-octane vehicle as it was to begin with. Rest, nutrition, and recovery modalities are the athlete’s version of repair and upkeep.
The first steps we take are eating well, getting enough sleep, and planning active recovery and off-days. After that, however, there are little tricks to optimize performance. For some, it’s as simple as getting their morning coffee before the gym. Others rely on sports drinks during and after hard sessions in the heat. Many of us reach for NSAIDS like ibuprofen to deal with muscle soreness or chronic fatigue.
I, personally, swear by melatonin to help me sleep. Another small trick I’ve recently encountered is CBD, and I’m not alone. Athletes everywhere are noticing the benefits of CBD as its popularity grows across the world. It’s finally legal to grow and sell in the USA. And it’s even been removed from the prohibited list of drugs by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Therefore, now is the perfect time for you to jump on the CBD train. But, if you’re smart, you won’t just try something because everyone else is doing it. Fortunately, we’re here to discuss all things CBD: the benefits for athletes, the legality, when to use it, and what brands to buy. Read on to learn more.
What is CBD or Cannabidiol?
CBD stands for cannabidiol, a compound known for tons of health benefits in the human body. Athletes take vitamins or electrolytes for sports performance, and CBD is no different. It has a naturally occurring counterpart in the human body, and by taking it, you’re just fueling your nutrition.
The only difference that has people think twice – it comes from the cannabis plant. Certain strains of cannabis are used to make marijuana, but not all cannabis products get you high. If you think about it, plenty of other plants follow the same path. Grapes, wheat, and potatoes can be used to make alcohol, but they’re also incredibly nutritious additions to your diet.
The psychoactive part of cannabis is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. Present in both Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, THC is what stoners and non-stoners alike use to get high. However, since THC and marijuana have been illegal for years, and Cannabis sativa has so many other great properties, agriculturists have started to grow different blends. And thus the birth of the CBD movement.
The difference between hemp and CBD
When grown for an extremely low THC content, Cannabis sativa can be called hemp. In 2018, Congress approved and passed a Farm Bill, legalizing the sale and production of hemp ONLY if it contains less than 0.3% THC. The CBD content, however, can remain full and potent. This potency combined with the lack of THC is why most manufacturers make CBD oils from hemp.
How does CBD work?
The human body works like a well-oiled machine. Tons of regulatory processes constantly spin underneath the surface to keep us healthy. One of those systems, recently discovered by science, is the endocannabinoid system. Through circulating cannabinoid compounds, our body signals mood regulation, pain perception, neuron firing, and more. CBD features a similar molecular structure to these endocannabinoids. Thus, by adding it to your nutrition, you intake extra fuel to power this system.
Is CBD good for athletes?
CBD can be great for all ranges of athletes, from the very novice to most elite. It’s been shown to improve mood, assist in recovery, ease aches and pains, calm anxiety, and even fight cancer and seizures. While research is still new due to recent drops in regulations, it’s looking promising. Tons of professional athletes and weekend warriors swear by CBD. With little to no known side effects and tons of upsides, it’s worth a shot.
Right, but, is it legal and safe to use?
CBD itself, so far, has shown to be overwhelmingly safe. However, as supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, the products often skip out on some rigorous checks. Elite athletes should only take third-party tested supplements, ideally identified as NSF Certified for Sport, for quality-assurance.
According to USADA, the American arm of anti-doping, prohibited substances have to unfairly enhance performance, be a real health risk to the athlete, or violate the spirit of sport. It’s the anti-doping agency’s position that THC-containing marijuana can increase risk-taking behavior, which is great in certain sports that require regular, calculated risks (snowboarding, figure skating, BMX, diving, boxing, etc). It also violates the “spirit of sport” due to its illegality in many countries, and some experts think long-term marijuana use is a danger to health.
That being said, the World Anti-Doping Agency recently adjusted its policy on CBD. Athletes subject to drug testing know that this governing body ensures clean sport. One small error, even if unintentional, can break a career. CBD used to be prohibited, but as of late, WADA released this statement:
“Cannabidiol is no longer prohibited. Synthetic cannabidiol is not a cannabimimetic; however, cannabidiol extracted from cannabis plants may also contain varying concentrations of THC, which remains a prohibited substance.”
So there you have it. CBD itself is safe and legal to take. If you’re an elite athlete, take the same precautions you would with your other supplements.
Professional athletes who take CBD
Not surprisingly, elite athletes are jumping on this news. Here are just a few prominent athletes across multiple sports who use CBD.
Nate Diaz – professional UFC fighter
As a UFC fighter, Diaz repeatedly gets punched in the face and knocked to the ground. That itself warrants CBD use to manage pain and visible swelling. He tends to vape post-fight, once attracting attention for vaping CBD oil at a press conference. But he’s outspoken about how he uses it to recover from regular training sessions throughout his daily life.
Derrick Morgan – football player for the Tennessee Titans
Morgan not only turns to CBD for his own health, but he’s actively fighting to increase research on its benefits for athletes. Of particular interest – CBD and traumatic brain injury. As you’ll soon learn, CBD has been linked to neuronal health and limiting the death of brain cells. CBD oil already has strong support in Alzheimer’s treatment, so I’m excited to see what comes out of his efforts.
Bubba Watson – PGA golfer
Golf requires immense focus and calm under pressure. Watson, fully aware of this as a major champion, turns to CBD to maintain that cool. He recently announced a partnership with a Cannabis company, cbdMD, to further his golf career. Time will tell how that decision affects his performance on the PGA Tour.
Yaer Rodriguez – professional MMA fighter
Rodriguez, another octagon fighter, trains constantly to perfect his craft. His elite physique doesn’t just happen overnight. He (and other athletes) often need help to recover from hours of training. Rodriguez thanks CBD for his improved sleep quality and ability to bounce back day after day.
Andrew Talansky – professional cyclist and triathlete
With accolades like competing in the Tour de France, Talansky is no stranger to the demands or cycling. He credits CBD for his improved sleep, and even continued to use it through his transition out of cycling. It helped manage his anxiety about moving to a new professional sport, triathlons. Even further, sources say that CBD increased his recovery in between trainings and limited pain from old cycling problems.
Troupe Racing – a California-based elite cycling team
Troupe Racing comes in as another group of professional athletes partnered with a CBD company. They recently picked up their new sponsor, Seven Points CBD, to help reduce inflammation and rest across the entire team. According to Bike Magazine, Tim VanGilder, the team manager, claims that it improves his chronic back pain and sleep quality. Their experience goes to show that CBD helps across all types of elite endurance athletes.
Marvin Washington – Former NFL Defensive End
Retired professional athletes go from full-force in-season staff support to self-care at home. Without regular medical attention every day, many reach for pain pills. I mean, can you imagine what an NFL career does to your body? It has to be excruciating.
Instead of taking pharmaceuticals, though, Washington choose CBD to manage his lingering pain. He’s even an advocate for changing the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the legislation that federally criminalized cannabis possession in the first place.
Former NBA players
In 2018, the player-driven BIG3 league announced they would allow CBD use. The change came as higher-ups in the organization listened to players’ feedback about CBD for pain management. While CBD still remains prohibited in the NBA’s by-laws, former players and internationals are jumping on the chance to recover faster. Hopefully, the NBA will adjust their approach soon, as the commissioner has expressed interest in further research.
Athletes, CBD, and the Overtraining Syndrome
One of the single greatest benefits of CBD for athletes is the ability to manage stress and inflammation. Athletes work hard! We’re constantly demanding more and more of our bodies. We train hard day-in and day-out to reach the top. To an extent, this can crown us champion. But there exists dangerous tipping point that makes everything worse.
Dubbed the “overtraining syndrome”, chronic fatigue, repeated stress, and limited recovery reduces performance. It’s characterized by poor sleep, bad moods, chronic aches and pains, elevated cortisol levels, increased resting heart rate, added injury risk, and more.
Scarily, some of these things are just par for the course when training hard. So how do you maintain your daily work rate yet avoid falling over the edge?
CBD and Recovery
During training, we’re using our sympathetic nervous system for signaling. We need it to react quickly, avoid defenders, explode off of the line, and circulate blood to our muscles. After training, we should return to a parasympathetic state, allowing us to rest and relax.
Sometimes, however, our recovery can’t keep up with our training. When we haven’t fully recovered before the next session, it keeps compounding, chronically elevating stress and inflammation.
CBD can reduce inflammation and manage stress levels. Research has shown that cannabidiol attenuates secretion of cortisol in normal volunteers. One of CBD’s primary functions is to inhibit the secretion of neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and acetylcholine. By doing so, it helps our muscles (and entire body) relax. It’s also been found to lower the presence of inflammatory factors in overstressed rats.
The best ways for athletes to recovery still remain light exercise, compression, hydrotherapy, a healthy, nutrient-rich diet, and sleep. However, CBD can help your body calm down internally while you’re doing all of those other things. Every little bit counts when you’re talking about optimizing recovery and performance.
Other Benefits of CBD for Athletes
One of the best benefits of CBD for athletes is a benefit for all – improved mood and less anxiety. On top of that, CBD can reduce the perception of pain, help you sleep, manage weight, and more.
Let’s make one thing clear – these effects only work if you train hard. CBD is not some magic pill that makes you run further for longer. If it were, it would likely be prohibited.
What CBD oil CAN do, on the other hand, is reduce the perception of pain. Research has shown that CBD acts on certain receptors within your brain that control temperature, inflammation, and pain perception. When rats in the lab were given CBD after surgical incisions, they felt pain less intensely. In humans, CBD reduces pain and flare ups in chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.
Again, more research is needed in athletes because this concept is so new. But if we know it can reduce pain intensity, wouldn’t it follow that you could maybe push further in training? Even if you get an extra 50 feet or drop two seconds on your training time, those results compound over days and weeks. By the time you get to competition, you might be surprised.
Anxiety and Stress
Within your endocannabinoid system, you’ll find CB1 and CB2 receptors – the locks that receive cannabidiol as a key. Once these two meet, it helps control the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and GABA. These two can control fear and anxiety improve mood and affect.
Any athlete knows the dangers of being over-anxious. While on the one hand, having a little nervous energy can help you perform. On the other hand, we can choke or freeze when it gets too overwhelming. Studies have actually seen CBD reduce state anxiety when participants were asked to perform.
On top of managing performance anxiety, CBD can just chill you out in general. Athletes need a space to relax after a long day at training. CBD helps us relax, reduce anxiety and access that rest and recovery mode as soon as possible
Did you know you go through multiple stages of sleep at night? I won’t bore you with the details, but you should know about REM sleep. It’s the deepest stage of sleep where we not only dream, but our bodies recover the most. We consolidate memory, learning, and repair tissue while sleeping deeply.
In order to get there, though, we have to fall asleep. CBD is almost like a reverse-caffeine. Rather than wake you up in the morning, it can help you fall asleep at night. Even more, research suggests that CBD has implications in REM sleep.
For example, Parkinson’s patients experienced less disruption in their REM sleep while taking CBD. Rats given CBD oils spent more time in the deep sleep stages. In contrast, other studies show no effect on sleep architecture. Basically, we need more time and research to confirm anything, but early studies are promising.
Some athletes express concern that taking CBD will slow them down. It makes sense, as marijuana is known to reduce reaction time. Fortunately, you don’t feel the effects of CBD like you would THC. It doesn’t make you lethargic.
On the contrary, CBD improves your nervous system health. Reaction time ultimately comes down to how quickly your brain receives a signal and your neurons fire that signal to muscles. CBD maintains homeostasis in your nervous system, regulates electrical firing, and limits dangerous neuronal inflammation.
Want to learn more?
Good! You should be invested in improving your performance and health. Follow your curiosity to this YouTube video to learn everything about CBD for athletes.
The Best CBD products for Athletes
Look, we get it. CBD can help athletes recover faster and perform better. But which products are actually safe for athletes to take? While each individual athlete should do their own research based on sport, here are our top recommendations:
Joy Organics, a Colorado-based company, focuses on the purity of their products. Everything that hits their shelves is lab-tested for quality. They make sure that none of their products contain THC, so you can feel safer about drug-testing.
In addition, they center their product line on something called broad spectrum CBD. Like a fine wine, broad spectrum CBD offers benefits of flavor, smell, and other antioxidants. In contrast, CBD isolate features CBD as its sole ingredient. Joy Organics takes the broad spectrum approach, adding additional benefits and an entourage effect. This way, their advanced production methods yield a more potent CBD oil.
As the primary concern for athletes, CBD pure tests each product with an independent, third-party. They make all of their results public, so you can research each individual result. It’s not just THC they’re concerned about. Each report showcases the heavy metal levels, pesticides, microorganisms, and residual solvent levels. That way, you can be absolutely sure that you’re only getting the CBD you want, and nothing you don’t.
They also use full-spectrum hemp oil for an enhanced effect. Full spectrum doesn’t necessarily extract THC (as broad spectrum does). Remember, however, that hemp by law has to contain less than 0.3% THC. Still, cautious athletes should choose this out-of-competition to be safe.
CBDfx offers a wealth of CBD products for the most savvy consumer. One of their highlights comes in their CBD gummies with melatonin. Not only is it a nice pre-bed CBD treat, but melatonin has been scientifically proven to speed up sleep onset. They also sell tinctures, vape juice and pens, massage oils, and more.
Make sure to download the individual lab report from their products before you buy. All of their products are made from hemp, but do your research before making a decision.
Using only organically-sourced products, NuLeaf Naturals uses carbon dioxide extraction to pull their pure CBD from hemp. Not only is this the most effective way to get clean, pure CBD, but it’s the best for the environment.
Their full-spectrum CBD oils feature secondary cannabinoids, which also nourish your endocannabinoid system. They specifically breed their hemp for CBD quality on licensed farms in Colorado, so you know you’re getting the real deal.
Conclusion and Final thoughts
Every few years, something new pops up that promises to revolutionize athletic performance. From protein shakes after a workout to creatine beforehand, supplement companies will always try to sell you on their product. That’s because they want to make money.
The truth is, no one supplement will make you a champion. Only you can.
CBD as been shown as safe, legal, and effective to use. The only risks are that its production isn’t governed by a federal body. But neither is any supplement, so it’s just as risky as taking a multivitamin. You need to do your research – if it contains any THC or other illegal substance, turn the other way.
Lots of the studies referenced above were on rats or small, specific populations. A lot more research is warranted in order for me, or anyone for that matter, to claim CBD will definitely improve athletic performance. What we do know is that CBD offers lots of benefits with few side effects. It can provide pain relief, help you sleep, reduce performance anxiety, and limit overtraining.
It might not be a magic pill. But if CBD can make you train harder and recover better, then why not use it?
Kimber Rozier is an entrepreneur, former Harvard coach, and decorated professional rugby player for the USA who loves sharing her knowledge through coaching and writing. Certified by the NSCA and Precision Nutrition as an expert, she brings her wealth of experience to the page, sharpening the lens by which we see the world. She writes for many small businesses, as well as large publications such as Men’s Health, MyFitnessPal, and EliteFTS. She now owns her own business, Dare Performance, in which she promotes a healthy lifestyle through journalism. Contact her at Kimber-Rozier.com.